NESTA: Futurefest by Liz Williams

Tobacco Dock 1I recently contributed to an anthology of women’s SF published by a think-tank (doteveryone, helmed by Martha Lane Fox) and they very kindly gave me a free ticket to an event in Wapping: Futurefest 2018.

This was held in Tobacco Dock, a converted tobacco warehouse which is now a conference centre (an impressive building in its own right, with its long, low stone arched rooms) and it was an interesting setting for a conference on the future, being an old industrial building. The conference itself was run by the innovation foundation NESTA and featured a mix of political thought, technology, and social concepts. Futurefest’s website states:

“This year’s FutureFest came at a time where for many, our relationship with the future felt troubled. From hidden influences over the media and politics to growing threats of terrorism and environmental degradation ,the forces shaping our world seem threatening and remote. FutureFest brought together thousands of forward thinkers to explore ways to put power back into the hands of citizens; tapping into new ways of thinking and solutions for some of this era’s biggest challenges.”

Futurefest entrance 1Nicola Sturgeon and Sir Nick Clegg both gave talks on the future of politics, and there were talks devoted to consciousness, social change, the future of employment and the idea of universal wages, and many more ideas. There were also experiential exhibits: I had limited time, so focused on these. I went to a 3 minute VR concert by Imogen Heap, finding myself in a woodland landscape filled with fireflies, while a digitized woman sang to me. I also petted some cute robot bunny-pups, designed as alternative care and therapy animals for the housebound (the people who make them are also looking at domestic care robots). These had to be programmed to remain within a designated space, as there were problems with them following delegates around and seeking snuggles (this was not the Blade Runner-y dystopian end of robotics!). In addition to this I watched a short film on the nature of consciousness by the Sackler Centre from the University of Sussex, and wandered through a pop-up urban garden while someone from the Groundwork gardening organisation explained how urban gardening can cause a decrease in anti-social behavior.

I did not sample the edible wares of the bug bar (it does what it says on the tin) or the wonky vegetable smoothies given out by the Economist (the vegetables were wonky, not the smoothies – the publication is trying to highlight the widespread practice by supermarkets of only selecting perfectly formed vegetables).

Tobacco Dock and ShardI attended a talk on smart cities: how city management is looking to technology to engage citizens in participatory democracy and evaluate quality-of-life aspects such as air pollution. The panelists were all concerned with potential abuses of this – for instance, the dangers of creating a surveillance society and too much power being sidetracked into the big vendors such as Google and Amazon, resulting in top-down corporate control rather than ground-up needs of citizens themselves.

All of these concepts are obviously concerns of the average SF writer. It was noted that we’re not particularly good at predicting the future (the failure of early SF to really get to grips with miniaturization is an example) but we are reasonably good at causing it. At an earlier event at Imperial College, Mars geologist Sanjeev Gupta commented on how so many people involved in the science of space exploration are also fans: what they read informs what they try to achieve (the ‘That would be so COOL’ effect), and I think this is applies to other fields. But what it does show is that a range of people, from politicians to scientists and engineers and social policy makers are actively engaging with what’s coming down the pike, albeit in a somewhat piecemeal fashion (I’m not sure how much long–term joined-up thinking is going on, as opposed to knee-jerk reaction on the part of political establishments, for instance).

The presence of some major UK political figures, a number of university departments, and some of the heavy-hitters of the corporate sector, indicate that futurology is of major concern to areas of the establishment. How far can we, as SF writers – generators of future content – engage with this process? Attendance at events such as Futurefest (which I wouldn’t have known about if I hadn’t been commissioned for a short story submission) is something that we as SF writers might consider, alongside our (to us) more conventional conventions.

Liz WilliamsLiz Williams is a science fiction and fantasy writer living in Glastonbury, England, where she is co-director of a witchcraft supply business. She has been published by Bantam Spectra (US) and Tor Macmillan (UK), also Night Shade Press and appears regularly in Asimov’s and other magazines. She has been involved with the Milford SF Writers’ Workshop for 20 years, and also teaches creative writing at a local college for Further Education.

Novels are: THE GHOST SISTER (Bantam Spectra), EMPIRE OF BONES, THE POISON MASTER, NINE LAYERS OF SKY, BANNER OF SOULS (Bantam Spectra – US, Tor Macmillan – UK), DARKLAND, BLOODMIND (Tor Macmillan UK), SNAKE AGENT, THE DEMON AND THE CITY, PRECIOUS DRAGON, THE SHADOW PAVILION (Night Shade Press) WINTERSTRIKE (Tor Macmillan) and THE IRON KHAN (Morrigan Press) and WORLDSOUL (Prime). The Chen series is currently being published by Open Road.

Her first short story collection THE BANQUET OF THE LORDS OF NIGHT was also published by Night Shade Press, and her second and third, A GLASS OF SHADOW and THE LIGHT WARDEN, are published by New Con Press as is her recent novella, PHOSPHORUS.

The Witchcraft Shop Diaries (1 and 2) are published by New Con Press.

Her novel BANNER OF SOULS has been nominated for the Philip K Dick Memorial Award, along with 3 previous novels, and the Arthur C Clarke Award.

About Jacey Bedford

Jacey Bedford maintains this blog. She is a writer of science fiction and fantasy (, the secretary of Milford SF Writers (, a singer ( and a music agent booking UK tours and concerts for folk performers ( She's also a Home Office / UK Visas and Immigration department licensed sponsor processing UK work permits (Certificates of Sponsorship).
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